Keeping Track of the Force

Jan. 1, 2002

On any given day, thousands of people with Air Force connections are on the move–taking leave, traveling to and from schools, making permanent changes of station, or serving on Temporary Duty assignments. Normally, the Air Force cares little about the exact whereabouts of such people during their travels. All that matters is that they arrive at their prescribed destinations on time.

That all changed on Sept. 11. In the hours after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., determining the locations of such individuals became critical.

“Our first concern was to account for everybody in the Air Force,” said Col. Steven Kelley, chief of the personnel readiness division in the Directorate of Personnel Accountability at the Air Force Personnel Center. “That’s more complicated than it seems. We’re talking about active duty, Guard and Reserve, civilians, and even contract employees in some cases.

“We were looking for people who were assigned to or on TDY to the Pentagon, but we also had to find people who were assigned to agencies in the [Washington, D.C.] metropolitan area, such as the National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, and might have had business that day in the Pentagon.

“Then we were concerned about folks on duty or on leave in the New York City area. We had recruiters who are assigned in the general vicinity of where the attacks took place. So we quickly found we faced multiple challenges in accounting for the force.”

Nor was this to be a short-lived crisis for personnel officials. In the days after the attacks, they made plans to gear their recently updated data system for a new round of deployments, to cope with a flood of requests for return to active duty, to make still-developing Internet systems responsive to new demands, and to deal with the new concept of homeland defense.

The Accounting

The immediate problem of accounting for the force fell to the Personnel Readiness Center at Randolph AFB, Tex. It had handled natural disasters, aircraft crashes, and terrorism at overseas installations, but nothing in its experience had the widespread effects of the Sept. 11 attacks here at home.

“For the military members who were at the Pentagon,” said Kelley, “we didn’t have a really significant problem. As they evacuated the building, they went to designated points and checked in with their supervisors or someone assigned to do a head count. There was an accountability system already in place, so we could match them against Social Security numbers or other means of identification and against a master list and close that particular piece of the puzzle.”

With civilian employees, however, it was a different story.

“Accountability,” said Kelley, “often begins and ends in the supervisor’s desk with a personnel folder on that individual.” Kelley said they wound up designating a person in the Pentagon to be a central site for civilian accountability. “The contract employees posed more of a challenge because they work for the contractors,” he added. “We just stayed engaged with those contractors until they gave us 100 percent accountability.”

Other pockets of people were difficult to locate because not everyone in the Washington area is assigned to a military organization. For example, there are active duty officers who work in civilian clothes with the Federal Aviation Agency.

“In the case of the recruiters in New York, we just asked Recruiting Service to reach out and touch those folks and they were able to do so in short order,” said Kelley.

There were also military people who were training with industry and in other education programs. Personnel turned to agencies such as the Air Force Institute of Technology and whatever points of contact would help identify folks who could have been in the New York area.

As the search wound down, new challenges loomed.

“Even before the President announced the war on terror,” said Kelley, “we felt that the effort was not going to be short term. So we started developing a long-range vision of where we might be going, and we organized ourselves in that fashion. The first thing on our list in the wake of the tragedy was to prepare for accounting for forces deploying to wherever they might have to go.”

Broad Spectrum

The colonel said that the PRC becomes the focal point for all personnel actions for an operation, whether it is assignments, Stop-Loss, re-enlistments, schools, or promotions. Whatever the issue is, it gets worked through the PRC.

“The accountability mission is first and foremost, especially when you’re talking about disasters and crisis response,” said Kelley.

Judith Grojean, chief of media relations, represents AFPC’s public affairs office in the Readiness Center. She said, “I’ve watched this group work together, not just on the Sept. 11 instance but on the Khobar Towers bombing, on hurricanes, and on the [National] Guard crash [last year in Georgia]. In September, they worked day and night to get the accountability and to keep the families informed.”

With the deployment of US forces to the war front, other elements of the personnel structure came into play. At one time, personnel officials airlifted cumbersome, van-mounted computer systems to deployed units to provide basic services at remote locations. More recently, however, new technology has made the vans obsolete. Today’s front-line forces are served by Personnel Support for Contingency Operations teams.

“We don’t use vans any more,” said SSgt. Hope Hernandez, a PERSCO expert at AFPC. “We came out with a laptop computer system that is more portable. It works with phone lines. We have a secure system that goes with it and gives it modem access.”

With this mobility, the personnel function doesn’t just follow the troops to war. Now, it often is one of the first elements on the scene. “A two-man PERSCO team carries a laptop in,” said Kelley, “often with the first forces that land at a bare-bones base.”

Once they have established some communications connectivity, these individuals can lash up to a telephone line and start passing information to proper places. It’s a flexible system; workers can download data to a disk, and if they can get to a secure Internet drop, they can transfer the data via the Internet as well.

“We use a rule-of-thumb ratio of one PERSCO member per 150 airmen,” said Kelley. “So the first two on the ground can handle up to about 300 airmen for accountability purposes. The next element would be flown in later. It would be a four-person team with another laptop with them and include an officer and three NCOs. So now you have six people on the site, and they can expand into what we call a mini-military personnel flight and start handling things such as promotions, schools, and other day-to-day personnel operations, at least at a low level for people on the site.”

As the force grows larger, another two-person team can come in. It doesn’t bring in a system but brings additional expertise. Then in a fourth element, comes a field grade officer to provide enough rank to deal with senior leadership and answer tougher questions.

Business as Almost-Usual

As the Readiness Center and PERSCO teams deal with the more immediate demands of the war, other personnel elements continue business as usual, with a few added complications.

“We’re still running promotion boards that we had already programmed,” said Col. Dale Vande Hey, director of personnel program management. “But because of Stop-Loss, we do separations and retirements in a different mode. And in the area of accessions, our mind-set is different with the opportunities to bring more people back on active duty.”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Air Force ordered a 30-day stay on separations and retirements for members in all specialty codes. After the initial freeze period, the restrictions were to be eased and only those in skills considered critical to the mission were to be held longer. The Stop-Loss order allowed for the separation of members already in the process of leaving and for appeals in other cases. Vande Hey said people volunteered to stay if needed.

Not only present but former members wanted to help, and after a long drought in recruiting and retention, the Air Force moved to accommodate as many as it could. “Before Sept. 11, you had to meet particular requirements [to come back],” said Vande Hey. “Our approach now is to look at it with a broader view and be more receptive to bringing people back in if they meet the needs of the Air Force.”

“The center has set up a call-in center through our operations directorate, where we are collecting the names of people who want to come back,” he added. “Rather than just turning them off by saying they don’t fit the specific requirements, we will take their names, look at their backgrounds, and see if we can make a fit.”

Capt. John J. Thomas, AFPC’s chief of public affairs, said, “We’re not only looking at people coming back to active duty. If they are interested in going back to the reserves or even to civil service, we have links set up for them. We’re looking at the Total Force.”

Impulse Vs. Commitment

One of the center’s problems has been to distinguish between people who are caught up in the feelings of the moment and those willing to commit to the long haul. Maj. Gen. Michael C. McMahan, AFPC commander, said, “I believe in the sincerity of the individuals calling in, but it is really not just whether they want to come back into the military or not. I have received some calls personally from individuals that I know and the reaction is fairly consistent. They say, ‘I want to do something. You tell me what you need me to do, and I will do it.’ “

“Our challenge is to determine the currency of their knowledge and where they can make the largest contribution,” said McMahan. “Are they physically fit or should we encourage them to serve their nation and the Department of Defense through civilian jobs? We also have a surge in civilian positions. Or if they are physically fit, and able to be worldwide deployable, where can we utilize them?”

He added, “As each individual comes in, … and we encourage those who sincerely want to rejoin the military to please contact us, … we are looking for those people who can fill the most critical needs. If someone requires technical training or special training, then we also have to make sure we have the training capacity to bring them on. That is a more complicated issue because, in trying to become very efficient, we have drawn down our training infrastructure in both tech training and pilot training. Those are challenges that are long term and if, in fact, we see that we have an increased requirement, we will have to determine our best way to get those long-term training issues taken care of.”

“I think that there has been an immediate reaction and a bow-wave effect at the beginning,” stressed McMahan. “But I also think that this surge in patriotism has great potential for being positive for a long time.”

The events of Sept. 11 also focused new attention on the Air Force’s efforts to make personnel functions more accessible to individual members. About two years ago, AFPC launched the virtual Military Personnel Flight, an electronic replica of the traditional base “people” office. The idea was to allow members access to personnel data from their home or office computers. It let them check their records and initiate some of the actions that formerly required in-person visits.

The vMPF opened shop at about the same time the center was revamping its personnel data system, however, and that initially limited the number of functions that could be carried out by members. Despite some early glitches, the new Military Personnel Data System now is up and running, and the vMPF program is expanding to include more functions, cover more people, and meet the new needs of deploying troops.

“MilPDS provides the data and the vMPF personalizes it,” said CMSgt. Deborah Fuqua, chief of Knowledge Management, which oversees the vMPF. “We take the data and present it so that the individual on the flight line can look at his own records without going to the base personnel flight.”

“When it first came on, vMPF was purely for active duty,” noted Fuqua. “Then, in February, the Reserve and Guard added four specific programs. We keep adding applications and many of those also are specific to Reservists and Guardsmen.”

Lt. Col. Nellie Riley, chief of the field activities division, said, “The vMPF will be vitally important for those troops who are deploying and going to where they can have connectivity through the net. They will be away from their home bases but still be able to get into the system and use it.

“We also are starting to look at how we could make vMPF beneficial to deployed commanders out in the field. The vMPF is a creative idea, and we continue to look at other creative ways we can use it.”

More Important Now

Collecting and storing accurate information has gained new importance since the September attacks. “One thing to note is that the MilPDS upgrade of the system had no significant difficulties through all that’s happened since Sept. 11,” said Capt. Geoffrey Perkins, chief, MilPDS testing and requirements. “Even though we had been having problems, they haven’t hampered our ability to mobilize and deploy people, to continue to pay people, and all that.”

“And we keep looking at everything that might help. For example, having the members check their emergency data online at the vMPF could cut down on what they have to do in the mobility processing line when they are deployed,” he said. “They could log on from home and check their mobility status, see that their families’ home addresses are correct on their emergency data cards, and things such as that.”

Like Perkins, other personnel officials emphasized ways in which members themselves can help. TSgt. Steve Shortland, NCO in charge in personnel readiness operations, suggested one. “A key area that has been a point of emphasis for some time is a program called duty status,” he said. “In addition to ‘present for duty’ we have myriad duty status codes that the member’s orderly room or command support staff can update when he or she goes TDY or on leave or whatever it may be. That program needs work. What we find is that our effectiveness rate is about 65 to 70 percent.

“We have installed a number of programs to try to improve that, but the bottom line is that it’s the member’s responsibility to get that duty status updated when he or she is anything other than present for duty. On Sept. 11, we had folks whose duty status reflected them as present for duty when, in actuality, they were TDY or on leave. That program is getting better, and I think that Sept. 11 helped prove our point that it is important and does give us visibility to the accountability of the force.”

“As we get past the initial surge,” said AFPC head McMahan, “it is a good time for members to do a self-assessment and ask themselves, ‘Are all my records up to speed? Are all my personal requirements taken care of, all my bills paid? Do I have my communications lines set up through my command structure and to my family?’ Those are the types of things that we have gotten very good at over the past decade because we have had so many individuals deploy on contingency operations. That does not mean that we won’t have challenges. But we have made great progress, we’re working very hard, and I believe that we are in very good shape.”

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “Their Mission Is To Help,” appeared in the December 2001 issue.